Thirteen lucky years ago I began searching for my great-great-grandmother, Vita. As a child I had heard stories of Vita Gallitelli, how she and her husband, Francesco Vena, had committed a murder in Southern Italy. How she had escaped to America with her two sons in 1892, settling in my future hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey.
My mother had always told me Vita was a loose woman, that she had had sons with two different men back in Italy, and that someone named Grieco was involved in the story.
That’s all I had to go on.
For years, I didn’t even know where Vita had lived in Italy. In my family, and in many of the Italian families in Jersey City, we thought our ancestors came from Naples. Like millions of other immigrants, they had simply sailed from Naples, but had never lived there.
A cousin did some basic research and found a birth certificate for our great-grandfather, Leonardo. He came here with Vita at age 13. His brother, Valente, came on a separate ship that same year at age 15. The documents said they were born in the province of Matera, in the towns of Pisticci and Bernalda in the region of Basilicata.
I had never heard the name Basilicata before and pulled out the atlas to see where it was on Italy’s boot. And there, deep in the instep, near the Ionian Sea, was my family’s ancestral home. Little did I know, tracing my finger over the names of those towns on the map, that I would be spending a great deal of time and energy not only visiting, but thinking about Basilicata over the next decade.
I read up on the region and found that it had been one of Italy’s poorest, a godforsaken isolated place once filled with hunger, disease, brigands, and an entrenched feudal farming system that lasted as late as the 1950s. Tourists were rare those days. Hardly anyone ever visited, not even other Italians.
One Italian friend told me he heard it was beautiful, though, with rolling green pastoral scenes, an untouched land filled with painted caves from when Byzantine monks hid out there from religious persecution in medieval times. He told me it was the setting for The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s Biblical film. I soon found out that was only the latest in a string of Biblical films shot in Matera, a white, rocky place that resembled the Holy Land so much it was often used as its stunt double.
I watched all those films and soon became obsessed.
With my mother and two children in tow, ostensibly on vacation for a month, I lit out for Bernalda to begin my real search for Vita. Paulina, age 1, Dean, age 4, and my 73-year-old mother and I would enjoy the local cuisine – crackly cruschi fried peppers, sharp caciocavallo cheese, and pasta with ceci beans. Between wonderful meals, we would try to find our family members. And I would do some research.
Or so I thought.
In Bernalda, all offices and businesses are closed daily from 1 to 7 pm for an epic siesta. Most mornings, I rose early and moved from tiny house to tiny house, trying to find someone who knew Vita’s story. I heard plenty of murder stories, but none involving a Vita Gallitelli or Francesco Vena.
When the anecdotal research failed, I headed over to the local comune, or city hall. The clerk there told me the records I was searching for – a wedding certificate for Vita and Francesco, Vita’s or Francesco’s birth certificate — were not available and that I should come back in three weeks. By then, I would be headed back to America. I tried to explain this to her in broken Italian. But she shrugged and walked away.
And then the local feast began–the feast of San Bernardino–and the town of Bernalda shut down for an entire week to celebrate.
In the neighboring town of Pisticci, where my great-grandfather had been born, their feast–the Feast of St. Rocco–hadn’t yet started and the town officials were more friendly. With the help of a local policeman named Evaristo, I found the small white house where Leonardo was born in 1879. But after days of searching the archives and the church records, I found nothing but Leonardo’s birth certificate, which I already had.
I went farther afield to the archives in Matera, the closest city and provincial capital, and searched through stacks and stacks of criminal files from the turn of the century, while my mother baby-sat back in our stone house in Bernalda.
But I found nothing having to do with Vita or Francesco. All I had to show for my month-long trip was some paper cuts and a growing sense of frustration.
Fortunately, right before I left I met the town historian, Angelo Tataranno, and his friend, genealogist Antonio Salfi. Tataranno had been to Jersey City years earlier to make contact with the descendants of the many immigrants who had settled there from Bernalda. Little did my family know that Jersey City had been a landing point for dozens of families from Bernalda and the surrounding villages.
In my last remaining days in Bernalda, Tataranno and Salfi helped me track down Vita’s birth certificate and also described what life was like back in the 1800s there: The miseria–or misery–that infected the lives of its people. How half the children born would die before the age of five. How many of the farmers’ wives were systematically raped by the padroni. They told me about Prima Notte, the rite of First Night, when the landowner would sleep with the worker’s virgin bride on their wedding night.
The landowners in the area were named Grieco. No strange coincidence, I thought.
I vowed to return and finish my research on Vita. But it would take ten years to make another trip. Taking care of my young children while trying to do serious research was impossible. I would wait for them to grow up, and in the meantime, read everything ever written about Basilicata.
Hoping to find a clue to my family crime, I read and re-read Christ Stopped at Eboli, Carlo Levi’s classic book about living in Basilicata in the 1930s. I drank in all of Ann Cornelisen’s writings, bought old Baedeker guides, read the travelogues of H.V. Morton and George Gissing, studied Ernesto de Martino’s, Anna Parisi’s and Dorothy Zinn’s anthropological work, and discovered the criminal research of Cesare Lombroso, a northern Italian doctor who claimed at the turn of the last century that criminal activity was inherited. Lombroso, and eventually the United States government, largely blamed the Southern Italian immigrants for much of the rising crime in America. Desperate to find something, anything, I searched the criminal faces in Lombroso’s studies for people who resembled my family.
I joined Ancestry. I became friendly with some long-lost cousins, the descendants of Valente, Leonardo’s brother. We held a family reunion and then did some genetic tests and found that we were indeed related, that Leonardo and Valente had the same father.
Then two years ago, when my children were 11 and 15, I hired two researchers – one from Pisticci and one from Bernalda – and headed back down to Southern Italy. In four days, with the help of Imma and Giuseppe, I uncovered the family murder in Matera’s dusty archives, the same ones I had combed through ten years earlier. I had been searching in the wrong decade. The murder had occurred in 1872, twenty years before Vita’s escape to America. I finally found the true life of Vita. La vera vita della Vita, as Tatranno said.
Tataranno helped me translate the 600-page criminal file, which included incredible details of the crime, descriptions of the main players, the list of jurors, the birth certificates for everyone involved, and finally, the verdict. I had hit the family history jackpot.
In a few more days, with Evaristo’s help, I located the victim’s death certificate. The murder was much more tragic than I ever could have imagined.
I dug even further and found birth certificates for Vita’s parents and even her grandparents from the 1700s. I also found several children of Vita’s who never made it over to America–one with a different father, just like my mother had said–who all died before the age of five. They were severed branches of the family tree, names never uttered in our stories, lost to history.